Our Food Doesn’t Fall From the Sky

It’s easy to sit at our Thanksgiving tables and say grace for the abundance that is ours. It’s gotten a little harder, however -- in this age when fewer than 2 percent of Americans are engaged in farming -- to remember to thank the men and women whose labor actually puts it there.

Farmers are people most of us no longer know, and hardly think about.

A typical, middle-aged suburban dad, I had no contact with farmers until five years ago when, standing in line with my little daughter at McDonalds, I suddenly realized I didn’t know where my food comes from -- and neither did my children. In response, I set a quixotic goal: to follow one cow from “conception to consumption,” and examine up-close the lives of the people and animals that provide our food for us.

By the time I was done, I had my own pair of barn boots and coveralls, could tell the difference between a cow, a heifer, an ox and a steer, and had met some of the hardest-working, most admirable people I’ve ever known.

Until recent generations, every human culture knew intimately the source of its food. Sadly, the loss of this connection affects us profoundly.

As consumers, we choose our diets today largely out of ignorance, leaving us susceptible to being manipulated both by advertisers and interest groups. One type of food is healthful, we are told, another is tainted; still another we are urged to eat because it’s “locally grown.” But how many of us can name a locally grown variety of apple, cabbage, or peach? In a survey, a majority of meat-eaters couldn’t even identify what animal veal comes from. We have become so ignorant of food, even if we wanted to, we couldn’t heed our mother’s warning: “Don’t put anything in your mouth unless you know where it comes from.”

Farmers are aware of how agriculturally illiterate we are, by the way. “I saw a TV show a few yeas ago,” recalled cattle-hauler Joe Hopper, “and -- I’ll never forget it -- this lady says, ’What do we need farmers for? I buy my meat at the store.’ I don’t know,” he asked me in frustration, “do people think their food falls from the sky? "

Our ignorance about food weakens us politically, too. How can we direct our representatives to vote on multi-billion dollar agriculture programs when we have no understanding of how our local farms work? And when it comes to issues of animal agriculture, forget it. We cling to childhood images of animals grazing peacefully on pasture or go the other way and swallow whole the animal rightists’ view of callous farmers brutalizing animals on so-called factory farms. Which is it? In truth, we haven’t a clue.

The roots of Thanksgiving have been said to lie in the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, a harvest festival during which Israelite farmers would build and dwell in fragile huts covered with samples of their own produce. For years, my children and I annually built a festival hut in the backyard. It was only after my visits to farms, however, that I grasped one spiritual aspect of this ritual: when you live in a hut decorated with your own produce, you are forced to see up-close and appreciate -- even identify with -- your own crops, the fruit of your own labor.

How far from the field we have moved. Perhaps that is why we may feel a sense of detachment even as we say grace at our own Thanksgiving tables. Yes, we are thankful to be with loved ones, thankful for our health and worldly abundance. But how difficult it has become genuinely to feel thankful for the 20-pound turkey and the mashed yams. Not only don’t we raise turkeys and grow yams, we don’t know anyone who does. We’ve lost the connection with the cycle of life and death that puts food -- animal and plant -- on our plates.

I’m fortunate to have had the chance to follow the life arc of a single farm animal from birth to slaughter. There are other ways, however, you can connect: shop at a local farmer’s market and get to know the farmers and their fresh produce and meats; visit a farm with your kids to explore a corn maze or pick apples and pumpkins; join a food co-op, “slow food” chapter, or animal farm sanctuary; for your next vacation, be an agri-tourist and stay overnight at a farm bed-and-breakfast.

This Thanksgiving, I’ll think of the farmers who opened their lives to me and let me observe their labor. And when I say grace with my family for the abundance on our table, I’ll thank the farmers met for their part in putting it there.

Because, really, our food doesn’t fall from the sky.

Peter Lovenheim, author of “Portrait of a Burger as a Young Calf: The Story of One Man, Two Cows, and the Feeding of a Nation” (Harmony Books/Random House), lives in Rochester, New York.)

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